Special-needs organization supports children and adults through recreation, job training and affordable housing

<strong>Adults with special needs get aquatic therapy by relaxing their muscles in the Ability First center’s warm-water pool.</strong>

Adults with special needs get aquatic therapy by relaxing their muscles in the Ability First center’s warm-water pool.

Athena Mekis
Staff Writer

Water has long been touted as having healing powers. Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.”
Using water therapy as one of its approaches, the Long Beach community center AbilityFirst advances key life skills in children and adults with special needs so they may benefit our community.
Most individuals maintain a life-long experience with AbilityFirst, whether it’s through a housing program or attending the annual festivities at Camp Paivika, according to Carolyn Aguayo, director of programs.
These life skills are developed through after-school programs, job training, community employment, camping and affordable housing.
“We encourage independence for something as simple as bringing your backpack every day and hanging it up every day,” said program supervisor Jay Wook Lim.
The nonprofit organization serves about 2,000 children and adults. The Long Beach Center serves about 90 special-needs individuals and has about 40 staff members, making sure to keep a 1:1 to 1:5 ratio.
These trained staff at the Long Beach Center run skill-enhancing activities such as singing karaoke to improve social skills, using the pool for physical fitness, planting a garden to sharpen cognitive skills and sculpting ceramics and crafting construction paper for creative skills.
Even seniors in the community may utilize the 90-degree warm-water pool to relieve arthritis pain. The Long Beach Center is one of four community centers to offer a year-round, warm-water pool that relaxes joints and muscles.
The Long Beach Center also coordinates programs to coincide with the traditional school year, communicating with teachers and parents to receive the best instruction, Lim said.
AbilityFirst operates three work centers where adults are employed to shred paper, assemble, sort, package and mail products. These jobs help the individuals integrate into the community, according to the AbilityFirst website.
In 1984, it opened its first accessible apartment complex for adults with special needs in Glendale, California. Today, there are 10 apartment complexes, including one in Signal Hill.
AbilityFirst serves special-needs children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
“AbilityFirst was established in 1926 as the Crippled Children’s Society when polio led many children to have physical disabilities,” Aguayo said. “Most children today have developmental disabilities.”
California is one of the few states that funds special-needs education and programs, resulting in many special-needs families moving to California in the past, Aguayo said.
Government support provided 52 percent of funding for AbilityFirst in 2010. The nonprofit organization raised the rest of their funds through corporations, foundations, individuals and investments.
The Long Beach Center guild, a private foundation, recently raised money to upgrade the computer lab at the Long Beach center, allowing children and adults to practice navigating through computer software.
Families can visit one of the seven state-run regional centers to determine what program suits the disabled person.
The annual swim marathon will take place Friday, Aug. 26 from 10am to 3pm. Proceeds will go to funding the pool at the Long Beach center. There will also be an awards ceremony, a carnival and food. For more information call (562) 426-6161.

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